Drug Addiction

There’s a lot of confusion about what drug addiction (also called substance use disorder, or SUD) actually means, even though it’s a problem that affects millions of Americans from all walks of life. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) defines drug addiction as a chronic brain disease and one in which relapses are very common. It isn’t, though, a sign of weak moral character or lack of willpower. What might start as a choice to try a drug (as a legitimate prescription or recreationally) can result, over time, in someone losing the ability to choose and becoming addicted.

People with addiction cannot abstain, stop their drug-seeking behavior or control cravings without getting help. They compulsively need to use, regardless of the damage the addiction is causing in their lives – physically, mentally, emotionally, educationally, socially, spiritually, financially. Treatment is often necessary because the disease typically gets progressively worse and can even lead to disability or premature death. In fact, according to NIDA, using tobacco products is the number one preventable cause of disease, disability and death in the U.S.

Drugs of Addiction

To make matters more complicated, there are many types of drugs that people can become addicted to, and each has its own way of affecting the body, including its own unique withdrawal symptoms. Commonly abused substances include not just illicit drugs but also some prescription medications such as opioids (like oxycodone and hydrocodone), stimulants (such as cocaine and dextroamphetamine) and depressants (including benzodiazepines and barbiturates). These drugs may at first be prescribed for medical reasons and a person later takes the medication in a way that wasn’t prescribed by their healthcare provider, or illegally takes a medication without a prescription. Still others become addicted to over-the-counter medications like cough or cold syrups and sleeping pills that are readily available, legal drugs. Other commonly abused drugs include hallucinogens, inhalants, sedatives, hypnotics, cannabis (marijuana, for non-medical purposes), alcohol and, as mentioned above, tobacco.

Drugs Change the Brain

Part of the reason substance use disorders are so complex to understand and to treat is that over time drugs of abuse can actually change circuits in the brain – and those changes can persist even after stopping the drug and going through detoxification, or “detox.” Some drugs activate the brain’s reward system in such an intense way that a person can start to ignore activities they once enjoyed as they seek the intense pleasure or “high” the drug gives, driving them to keep using; cocaine and methamphetamine are good examples of this. When a drug user experiences this feeling of intoxication, it can affect their thinking, judgment, emotions and behavior and can lead to breathing problems, seizures, coma or even death. The brain can adapt to produce less dopamine (the neurotransmitter that controls the body’s reward and pleasure centers); the result is that the addict needs an ever-larger dose to experience the same high. Still other drugs, such as marijuana and heroin, work to dupe the brain into believing they’re brain chemical messengers known as neurotransmitters.

It’s important to understand that not everyone who tries a drug of abuse becomes addicted. Several factors are involved, including one’s biology (which includes family history and physiology), environment (whether friends and family use illicit drugs, for example) and developmental stage (adolescents are particularly vulnerable because their brains are still developing). All drugs have the potential to be addictive. But, in general, addiction to cocaine, methamphetamine and heroin can happen more quickly with fewer doses. (Alcohol is a very commonly abused drug, too; for more information on alcoholism, please visit the Alcoholism section.)

How Big is the Problem?

If you’re reading this because you’re concerned that you or a loved one may have a substance use problem, you’re not alone. Drug use is very common:

  • Nearly 25 million Americans were illicit drug users in 2013, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), which came out in 2014.
  • That same report shows that an estimated 21.6 million Americans ages 12 and older had a substance use disorder in the previous year, meaning an addiction to drugs or alcohol.

Depression and other mental health issues play an important role in the prevalence of drug addiction; many people have both an SUD and a mental health issue (what’s known as co-occurring disorders). In other cases, people who become addicted to a drug of abuse may go on to experience one or more symptoms of a mental health problem such as an anxiety disorder, depression or psychosis – what’s known as a substance-induced mental disorder.

An SUD can be mild, moderate or severe, depending on how many symptoms a person has. The more symptoms, the greater the severity of the drug addiction. Many illicit drugs, but not all, produce withdrawal symptoms; those that do include opioids, sedatives, hypnotics (such as LSD) and anxiolytics (drugs to treat anxiety). Tobacco products, stimulants and marijuana have less apparent withdrawal symptoms, according to the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, but they still cause withdrawal.

When people are addicted to a substance, it means in part that they’ve built up a tolerance to the drug; cravings make quitting extremely difficult – one of the reasons stopping a drug should be done under medical supervision. The first step, detoxification, is often done with the help of prescription medication to make the process more comfortable, but counseling is also needed to prevent the relapses that are common with this disease. Unfortunately, millions of addicts who could benefit from care at a specialty facility like a rehabilitation center don’t receive it, according to the NSDUH. For those who are addicted to two or more substances (what’s called a poly-drug addiction), treatment providers need to consider every substance a person is using when creating a treatment plan.

If you suspect that you or a loved one has a substance use problem, talk to a doctor, health care professional, addiction specialist or psychotherapist. These professionals can evaluate symptoms and make an accurate diagnosis that will help the recovery process begin.

Commonly abused drugs include:

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